FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Florida now stands nearly alone in its refusal to drop the requirement that high school seniors submit an ACT or SAT score as part of their state university applications.
Most other states have adopted test-optional policies for their universities this year because the coronavirus pandemic has led to the cancellation of many ACT and SAT test sessions. That has limited the ability of high school students to sit for the exams.
Florida and Wyoming are the only two that have not, according to FairTest: The National Center for Fair & Open Testing.
Across Florida, counselors, parents and students continue to push the state to change its rules for the current admissions cycle. Admissions directors at Florida’s public universities want state action soon, as applications are open and high school seniors have begun applying.
“Without that temporary relief, there are going to be a lot of students that are not going to gain admission because they can’t meet the requirements,” said Gordon Chavis, the associate vice president of enrollment services at the University of Central Florida.
Chavis cited data from the College Board, which makes the SAT, showing 1.1 million fewer students nationwide have taken the SAT to date compared with this time last year. That includes roughly 44,000 fewer in Florida, where the SAT is the more popular college admissions exam.
Students seeking admission at any of Florida’s 12 universities must submit scores from the ACT or the SAT, and those scores have historically played a key role in admissions decisions.
Suspending the requirement would require action from the Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system. This past spring, board members briefly considered altering the admissions criteria for students applying in 2021 but did not make any changes. The board is scheduled to meet Wednesday but does not plan to take up the issue.
Board of Governors staff members note the ACT and SAT have scheduled additional test sessions this fall, so students can still test in the months ahead. The board, they say, has also encouraged universities to extend the deadline for students to submit scores, if possible.
But Chavis and others worry the additional testing sessions could be canceled, too, or that some students may not test because their parents, fearful of health risks, don’t want them sitting in a room with others for several hours while they take the exam.
High school students aiming to earn the state’s Bright Futures scholarships, which pay up to 100% of tuition at state universities, also must take the SAT or ACT exam. For the class of 2020, Florida extended the deadline for submitting test scores from June 30 until Dec. 1 because so many testing sessions were canceled this year.
But it has not given any indication that it will do the same for students who graduate from high school in 2021. Any changes to the Bright Futures requirements likely would come from Gov. Ron DeSantis or the State Board of Education, which oversees the program.
Starting in mid-March, when much of Florida shut down to stop the spread of the coronavirus, test sessions across the state were canceled.
Jeff Speiser’s daughter, Willow, was to take the SAT in March. That was canceled and so was a more-recent session scheduled for August.
Willow, a senior at Celebration High School in Osceola County, is signed up for a session this month but worries that will, at best, be her only opportunity to take the SAT. In past years, students often took the exam more than once in an effort to boost scores and make their applications more competitive.
Speiser has called the board of governors to urge a waiver of test-score rules this year. “The stress they are putting on these exams and more importantly the students,” he said. “It’s a horrible situation.”
Last month, Chavis and admissions officials from Florida’s other public universities sent a letter to the board of governors asking for a one-year waiver on the exam requirements.
The admissions directors predicted a “major impact” if the waiver was not granted. They worry that top high school students without scores will be lured to out-of-state schools that aren’t requiring them this year, the letter said. They also fear that Florida students from low-income families have been disproportionately hurt by the test cancellations and will be at a greater disadvantage this admissions cycle.
Because Florida has not dropped its test-score requirements, Florida State University and the University of Florida — the state’s most selective universities — are the only Top 100 ranked universities in the country that have not gone test optional this year, said Bob Schaeffer, FairTest’s interim executive director.
FairTest, which opposes how standardized tests are used in admissions, has for years kept track of colleges that don’t require an ACT or SAT score to apply, a list that was growing even before the pandemic.
But since spring, many more schools have decided to waive their test-score requirements at least this year. Those that have made the call recently include elite private colleges, such as Duke University, and public universities from California to Georgia.
The University of Georgia made the change to ensure “testing limitations related to COVID-19 do not impact a student’s ability to apply to UGA,” it said.
“Other states are managing to do it,” said Susan Groden, a college counselor in South Florida who has written to the board of governors asking for test score rules to be dropped this year. “I’m very hopeful this can happen.”
Groden now has a private consulting firm but worked for years at public high schools in Miami-Dade County that mostly served students from low-income families. Test session cancellations most hurt that group, she said.
“There are so many inner-city kids who don’t have any resources to travel to take the test,” Groden said. “Students with money, they travel.”
One of her private clients, for example, couldn’t get into a test session in South Florida — many have filled quickly because of demand — so he went to Gainesville to take the SAT in late August.
Low-income students often feel out-of-state schools aren’t possible because of travel costs, among other factors, so Florida’s universities are their best option. But those may be lost to them, Groden said, if they can’t test or the rules don’t change.
“The students who this is a challenge for, they’re the ones who need us the most,” she added.
Lynn Stewart, dean of college counseling and guidance at Lake Highland Preparatory School in Orlando, said she has long wished ACT and SAT scores weren’t used in admissions decisions at Florida’s universities.
“I spend my time telling these kids, ‘You are more than a number,’” she said.
But Stewart said she also understands test scores give admissions officers a common benchmark on which to judge thousands of applications. FSU received 60,891 applications for 2020 admissions.
“We have really good schools in the state of Florida,” she said. “So there’s a lot of competition.”
Like others, Lake Highland students have been frustrated by testing cancellations, but Stewart thinks most will be able to sit for at least one exam given how many sessions are scheduled this fall.
Willow Speiser, the Celebration High student, said FSU, UF, the University of Michigan and the University of North Carolina are likely her top college choices. The two out-of-state schools aren’t requiring test scores this year and via text she said she wishes the same were true in state.
“I would love to see all the Florida universities say that they aren’t taking an SAT or ACT score,” she added.
©2020 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)